RSV is on the rise all over the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that both the number of RSV cases and the number of emergency room visits and hospitalizations related to RSV are going up across the U.S. This is putting a lot of stress on pediatric hospitals. “This year, there has been such a huge increase,” says Dr. John Carl, a pediatric pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Even though the common respiratory virus usually causes cold-like symptoms that go away in a week or so, the CDC says that RSV can be very bad for babies, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems.
Some people may feel like this virus came out of nowhere, but RSV has been around for a long time. It was first found in 1956, and the CDC says that it is one of the most common causes of illness in children. Dr. Pedro Piedra, a professor of molecular virology and microbiology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that RSV has always had a big effect. “So it’s not a new thing. It’s a major reason why babies end up in the hospital or die. It has a big effect on older people, just like the flu does. Still, it seems like there are a lot of cases of the disease this year. Carl says, “This is a normal virus, but there are three or four times as many of them and they are much worse.” “Really, this is the COVID for a child’s doctor.” So, what’s happening? Experts explain.
Why is there a rise in RSV this year?
This year, RSV season started in the summer instead of the usual fall and winter, and it hasn’t stopped. “That’s unusual for the amount of RSV virus we’re seeing,” says Piedra. RSV isn’t the only respiratory virus going around. COVID and influenza cases are “growing like wildfire,” says Piedra, which is creating a “tripledemic.” “We’ve never had so many hospitalizations and cases at the same time before,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a bad season because a lot of people were caught off guard by it in terms of [influenza] vaccines. People tend to put off getting vaccinated until the last minute.” Experts agree that the pandemic played a role, even though there has been some debate about “immunity debt” or “immunity gap.” This is the idea that we have more respiratory infections now because we stayed inside during the first two years of the pandemic and didn’t get as much exposure to viruses. Before they turn 2, almost all children have had at least one RSV infection. According to JAMA Network, RSV can be especially bad for babies in their first six months of life. It can cause bronchiolitis, which is an infection of the airways, and pneumonia. “Second infections are usually less severe and feel like a cold. But RSV was almost nonexistent in 2020, and now children are paying for it.”
Carl says, “People really stuck to isolation for the first two years of the pandemic. We didn’t have anything to give it.” This means that respiratory viruses, like RSV, didn’t have as many people to infect because most people stayed home. As people stopped taking the steps they used to take to avoid COVID, respiratory infections have gone up, with RSV “raising its ugly head,” says Carl. Piedra agrees with this and says that SARS CoV-2 had a “tremendous” effect on how other respiratory viruses spread. “It could be that the non-drug interventions that happened, like wearing masks, staying away from people, and having fewer get-togethers, had an effect on all the other respiratory viruses,” including RSV, he says. But when the kids went back to school, families started traveling again, and non-drug treatments like wearing masks were used much less. “We saw a lot of respiratory viruses spreading,” says Piedra. COVID, like RSV, is spread by droplets from an infected person’s mouth or nose when they talk, cough, or sneeze. It has also made us more aware of respiratory viruses in general, including how they spread and how to stop them. Before COVID, there were cases of RSV every year, but COVID has made us much more aware of respiratory viruses, says Carl.
How can people protect themselves from RSV?
Carl and Piedra both say that adults and children should make sure they are up to date on their COVID and flu shots to avoid getting other infections. Pfizer is working on an RSV vaccine, but as Carl says, “We don’t have it yet.”
So, in the meantime, experts say that you should wash your hands often. Carl says that cleaning any hard surfaces in daycare centers and schools also helps, since the virus can live on things like doorknobs and toys. “Teach kids that if they need to cough, they should cough into their elbow,” he says. When sick, experts say that both kids and adults should stay home. Carl says that if a child has a stuffy nose and you’re not sure whether to send them to school or not, they should wear a mask for three to four days so they don’t spread the illness to other kids. “I have a cold, and I don’t want to give it to you,” they can tell their classmates.